Presépio Fort/Castelo Fort
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Last update: 30/04/2015
If someone comes to Belém, the capital of Pará, in northern Brazil, and looks for the Forte do Presépio (Fort of the Nativity), Forte do Castelo (Castle Fort) or the Forte do Senhor Santo Cristo (Fort of the Lord Holy Christ), they will see that, in fact, they are looking for the same place. Built in 1616 by the Portuguese to protect a city that had just been founded, the fortification is located on Ponta Maúri, at the confluence of Guaianá River and the Bay of Guajará, marking the entrance to the port and the navigation channel that runs alongside Onças Island in Belém.
The number of names that Presépio Fort has had can be justified by events that characterized its foundation. After defeating the French in Maranhão in November 1615, the Portuguese arrived in the Amazon with an eye on British and Dutch movements, who had begun to approach the indigenous peoples to harness the potential of the vast Amazon region. The Portuguese Crown then entrusted Francisco Caldeira de Castello Branco, Captain-General of Rio Grande do Norte, with the mission to explore the area beset by the foreigners. Because of this, he received the title of Discoverer and First Conqueror of the Amazon River.
Coming to Belém from São Luís, with 3 ships and 200 men under his command, Castello Branco saw the need to build some kind of building that could protect his troops and the city they had just began to occupy. As soon as he arrived, he began to erect a fortification of mud and straw, garnishing it with twelve pieces of artillery. He gave it the name “Fort of the Nativity in Belém (Bethlehem),” a tribute to Christmas Day, the day he left Maranhão. Accommodation for the garrison was built inside the fort, as there was the fear of possible confrontation with the Tupinabá Indians and the possibility of British and Dutch invasions.
There was an attack in 1619, although it did not come from foreigners, but from the native people. The Tupinambás, Portuguese allies on arrival and also responsible for the fort’s construction, advanced against the village trying to expel their Portuguese conquerors, accusing them of raping their wives and daughters. The fight continued through the night. On one side, the Indians and their poisoned and flaming arrows, on the other, firearms. The fight ended only when the Guaiamiaba chief died after being hit by a musket shot. After this episode, the stronghold gained another layer of compacted earth.
No other invasion attempt happened again. In 1753, Castle Fort operated as a hospital for the first time to serve more than three hundred people suffering from an outbreak. Six years later, it became a military hospital, known as Castle Hospital. In the nineteenth century, when Pará decided to rebel against the Portuguese elite in the revolt which became known as the Cabanagem, the fort, already in poor condition, was the insurgents’ headquarters for five years (1835-1840).
Recent archaeological excavations have found ammunition, pipes, coins, and other old artifacts, which now belong to the Encontro Museum, another tourist attraction there. A further important finding was evidence of the existence of the Santo Cristo Chapel, one of the symbols of the origins of Pará. Presépio Fort was listed by the National Institute of Historical and Artistic Heritage (IPHAN) in 1962.
Today, after being used as a war arsenal, hospital and military base, it is one of the main sights of Belém. Visited daily by countless students, national and foreign tourists, it features a precious collection of antique cannons and even ammunition dating back to past centuries. Also part of it is the Feliz Lusitânia (Happy Lusitania) Complex, which aims to preserve Belém’s historical spaces and to keep alive the memory of the city that during colonial Brazil was the capital of Grão-Pará, an area that today corresponds to the enormous stretch of territory between Maranhão and the Amazon.
Recife, 26 May 2014.
Translated by Peter Leamy, March 2015.
MONTEIRO, Eliena. Forte do Presépio: marco da colonização do Pará. In: PORTAL da Amazônia. 12 jan. 2013. Available at: <http://www.portalamazonia.com.br/cultura/turismo/forte-do-presepio-marco-da-colonizacao-do-para/>. Accessed: 8 maio 2014.
TEIXEIRA, Paulo Roberto Rodrigues. Forte do Presépio. DaCultura, ano X, n. 17. Available at: <http://www.funceb.org.br/images/revista/20_8e5h.pdf>. Accessed: 5 maio 2014.
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Source: MORIM, Júlia. Presépio Fort/Castelo Fort. Pesquisa Escolar Online, Joaquim Nabuco Foundation, Recife. Available at: <http://basilio.fundaj.gov.br/pesquisaescolar/>. Accessed: day month year. Ex: 6 ago. 2009.